1. We Are All Designers

Pain Points Point to Opportunity

#23 Always Search for the Worst

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Optimists see the glass as half full. Pessimists see the glass as half empty. Designers see the need for a better glass.

The idea behind Bruce Mau’s 23rd Design Principle is that designers have an entrepreneurial mindset. Instead of setting up camp in areas already enriched by brilliantly designed solutions, they always search for the worst. Why? Because where there is failure, there is a lack of design, and that’s where design-thinkers can contribute the most.

“Designers see the world upside down,” Bruce says. “The biggest problem is the biggest opportunity. Good things are bad. Bad things are good. Terrible things are awesome. We have a first-responder mindset — we run towards the problem.  We’re looking for the biggest challenges, because that’s where the biggest opportunities are.”

Some of the best problems are ones created by our own success. For example, think of all the breakthroughs made to promote wellness, safety and extended human life expectancy. “The fact that we’re over seven-billion people creates a whole new set of problems,” Bruce points out. “And we’re over seven-billion people because we’ve solved so many problems.  If we failed more frequently, we’d have fewer problems. So this is a way of daily looking at where the opportunity lies.” And there’s plenty of evidence for just how well this methodology works.

Bruce points to some of the case studies collected in C. K. Prahalad’s  “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” In one story, Dr. V of Aravind (a ground-breaking eye care institution) made it his goal to design a way to eradicate needless blindness among India’s millions of poor people. Because they couldn’t afford treatment by an ophthalmologist and lacked the means of getting to a health care facility, blindness due to curable things like cataracts was rampant.  Designing a system to deliver quick, inexpensive eye surgery required that his team rethink every aspect of eyecare, from setting up rural eye care screening camps, to arranging transportation, to training surgeons and nurses to perform in new ways, with efficiently designed surgical rooms to take time out of the procedure. As a result, efficiencies went up, costs went down, and the contribution made by patients who could afford care was enough to cover the free services provided to the poor. Today, according to a Huffington Post article, Aravind surgeons to do more than five times the number of cataract surgeries performed by an average Indian doctor, and 10 times that of a typical US physician. Best of all, this proven system is now being replicated in developing countries throughout the world.

How does this apply to our industry? At the very top of the pyramid — exclusive, well-funded events have the resources to invest more in experimentation and the development of innovative ideas. At the base of the pyramid, the challenges are huge, because often there are more customers to serve but fewer resources to bring to the solution.  This points to a tremendous opportunity. If we can design solutions to elevate the experience of myriad exhibitors and trade show participants — and make that scale around the world — we can have a big impact.

Where should we begin? Bruce would tell us to search for the worst. Are people waiting in long lines to register? Are they eating mediocre food? Are they having trouble getting to the one exhibit they most want to see? “Anywhere there is friction, where people are not happy or satisfied, those are all opportunities for making money,” Bruce says. “They are all opportunities to create new value, to advance our industry.”

Digital technology has opened the door to innovations that simplify workstreams, engage audiences, and help personalize the experience. Consider the problem of sleep-inducing general sessions.  Sync™ by Freeman second-screen technology (formerly FXP|touch) gives presenters a way to connect with audiences in real time, assess their level of engagement, seek feedback and address their questions. It scales to any size audience and requires no special app downloads — just a web connection.

One of the most exhilarating things about working in the arena of live brand experience is that there is so much that we can improve. “Pain points” point to a need for designed solutions. Optimization is opportunity. In the new world of design thinking, it’s the optimist who notices what’s wrong.